Apple only offers two models of white earbuds, and Beats makes just a handful of different headphones. But look into the last 40 years of audio, and sound used to be a very personal experience, where consumers mixed and matched speakers and receivers to customize their system.
Now, the Copenhagen-based audio company AIAIAI is bringing mix-and-match audio to the world of headphones. Its new TMA-2 Modular, can be configured 360 different ways–with four different speaker units, five different earpads, three different headbands, and six different cords–each of which easily swaps out if you decide to buy new parts.
Designed by Lars Larsen’s design studio , the TMA-2 cans don’t stray too far from the core design language of their predecessors, the TMA-1s. Intact is the all-black colorway and simple, childlike lines of the original headphones (also designed by Kilo), which found unexpected success beyond the DJ market they were attempting to corner in 2010.
But the decision isn’t a mere fashion statement. The speakers and earpad styles will both strongly impact the sound you hear. Where as the original TMA-1s were geared towards the specific needs of DJs, and subsequent models focused on different kinds of listeners, the modularity of the TMA-2s will theoretically meet anyone’s needs from the outset.
“You could compare the interaction of speaker units and earpads with the interaction of a loudspeaker and the room you place the speaker in,” Frederik Jørgensen, AIAIAI co-founder explains. “The speaker units define the overall tonality of the headphone, while the ear pads shape the sound.”
But beyond that, AIAIAI sees their modular headphone as a paradigm shift to their own business plan. Jørgensen tells us that the TMA-2 allows the company to look beyond producing any single next product, and work more toward expanding partners–licensed third-party businesses–who could develop new modules for the TMA-2 system. It is essentially bringing that 1970s mix-and-match stereo philosophy to the headphone world, and inviting others to join in with them. When we asked if there would be licensing fees, we were told nothing is formalized yet. But even still, modularity will fundamentally alter AIAIAI’s business.
“We’ve obviously made some changes to the technology and design; but the major change lies in how this changes our company and how we work. We can now work much more efficiently and flexible in logistics and new product development–as well as in our partnerships with artist and labels,” Jørgensen explains. “This is a crucial decision for us in that it changes every corner of our structure. And that might be the reason why some bigger companies would find it more difficult to implement something like this.”
It also allows for a level of up-selling. Depending on a user’s choices, TMA-2 configurations range from $145 to $260. Having said that, outside the audio world, bigger companies are looking to personalization as a trend in product design. From Motorola’s Moto X smartphone to the Apple Watch’s wristbands and digital watch faces to the future of Ikea furniture to the current state of fast food, customization is in. And in this sense, it was only a matter of time before the trend echoed its way back into personal audio.
The TMA-2 is now available for purchase here.
Correction: An earlier version of the article said the TMA-2 had been designed by KiBiSi, when in fact it was designed by Kilo.